"Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!"

-- Jane Austen, from "Emma" (1816)

I woke up that Monday morning feeling pretty good about the way things were going between us. I should have taken the fact that he begged off my offer to let him walk me home Saturday night as a sign, but I suppose hindsight is always 20/20. With Houseparties -- Princeton University's annual three-day rite of dresses, dancing and debauchery -- on the horizon, I wanted to test whether Victor, the freshman I had been flirting with, was date-worthy material. So shunning the phone, the short walk to his dorm and the trusty postal service, I figured -- naively -- that a quick e-mail could help clarify the situation. I wrote:

hey just saying hi since i rarely get to talk to you unless i am wearing some ridiculous costume and we're both a few beers deep. apparently we still have to go to class at this school instead of just going on epic drinking adventures so i've got to run. but im me sometime -- runaround0. . . .

talk to you later amy

I was hoping he would take the hint and "im" -- instant message me. Later that afternoon, my heart quickened when I found this reply in my inbox:

My instant messenger name is [deleted] but I gave it up for Lent and haven't signed on since. I'm contemplating whether to return or not because I feel like I used to waste my life away on it . . . we'll see.

Laters-Vic

Flabbergasted, but eager to keep our virtual conversation going, I could muster only a short e-mail response:

no im? good god man, how do you communicate with the outside world?!?

That question pretty much says it all -- instant messaging, known simply as IM, is the communication lifeline of today's college student. Dialogue with my peers has been reduced to uncapitalized, unpunctuated and misspelled one-liners in HTML format. Even the most personal conversations now occur without human contact. What once required bumping into someone in person and making that initial painful small talk can now be done from the safety of a keyboard in simple text messages that do not unintentionally betray any disappointment or hurt.

In this new realm of faceless interfacing, there's e-mail, which is quick and informal, and then there's IM, which is immediate and ubiquitous. But when it comes to romance on the Internet, informality and immediacy give way to caution and prudence. My friends and I fret over these messages, sometimes even sending them to each other for editing, so that by the time they are sent "instantly," they have been crafted and honed, like a political campaign message. In sending my message to Victor, I broke a cardinal rule -- in romance, never type in haste.

The rules of virtual conversation and courtship are no more simple or well defined than they were in Jane Austen's world. Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet would have felt at home with cybertalk, and could have warned against my hasty indiscretion. Though often seen as removing inhibitions, the Internet only transposes them. Old conventions are replaced with new ones. No matter how many ways to communicate we find, it's still hard to communicate.

One of the new conventions is that an e-mail carries more weight than a casual IM conversation. For those who have missed this generational phenomenon, Internet services such as AOL Instant Messenger enable you to have multiple real-time conversations with friends. Each person has an online identity, known as a screen name. Whenever people are online, their screen names appear on your buddy list, a log of all your friends who are available to chat at that moment. But without Victor's screen name, I had been forced to e-mail him, in flagrant defiance of the rules of virtual flirting, which I had generally adhered to since arriving here from Milwaukee two years ago. Now I wasn't sure how to interpret my exchange with Victor, so I turned to my friends for an evaluation.

"Well, you e-mailed him first, which shows a lot of interest," my friend Jeff said. "The girl should be wary though, because if the guy doesn't like you, it can scare away the guy."

"But he pursued me first! He even e-mailed me with his cell number!" I protested, referring to an earlier exchange.

"If there is a girl that I am interested in, I never IM or e-mail her first," Jeff said, without regard to the contradiction that if two people interested in each other both followed his advice, they'd never make contact. But never mind that. Had I really shown my cards too soon?

"There is a huge fear of being too eager," agreed my friend Rachel, a sex columnist in the campus newspaper. "People say 'I can't e-mail him again' or 'I can't IM him first' too many times. It may seem standoffish, but it's not."

Now I was just as confused as before. To e-mail or not to e-mail, that remained the question. This was a situation where I needed to turn to my best friend and editor Diane. She and I always use the term "breezy" to describe the tone we try to take with the opposite sex.

"Breezy means sounding fun and light in your e-mails," she counseled. "You don't want anything too serious and you want to seem too busy for definite plans. It's good to proof each other's e-mails because it can be hard to tell if you sound like a crazy stalker."

"But e-mails are generally for longer, more emotional messages," warned Alex. Alex is another one of my guy friends, so I was counting on his insight. "E-mails are for something you plan, like asking her out."

Apparently I had unwittingly jumped to a form of communication that had men running for their lives. If it carries around all of this emotional weight, e-mail hardly seems to blame for our impersonal relations and atomized society. E-mail, at least for my guy friends, is one rung down on the emotional ladder from marriage proposals and shared bank accounts. As a result, hundreds of thousands of confused college women like me now decode these messages as if we are searching for hidden professions of love in the Rosetta stone.

Fearful that I might be scaring off my prospect through e-mail, I polled my friends about using IM in an attempt to connect with Vic. All agreed this would be preferable.

But IM could be equally dangerous and ambiguous. What if Vic posted a message indicating he wasn't there, when he really was? Or, if he forgot to post a message saying he was away from his computer, how would I know he wasn't just ignoring me?

No better than e-mail, IM was providing me with few instant answers: "Girls get all worked into a lather and think 'He doesn't like me' and that is so not true at all and it is totally in their head," Rachel comforted me. "People project onto their words, assuming the other person can understand their tone."

Listening to her, I realized that the technological revolution had left my social life pretty much where it would have been otherwise. Aside from the agonizing waiting and the uncertainty of not knowing whether there is actually another human on the end of the modem line, we still have to struggle to decipher every virtual pause, every potentially sarcastic remark and every outrageous sexual advance with nary a hand gesture nor facial expression.

Is this the fate of dating in the 21st century? Are members of my generation so fearful of and embarrassed about human interaction that we have resorted to hiding behind high-definition monitors and WiFi connections? Sitting futilely by our computers, we wait for a reply from princecharming@romance.com. I had hoped it wouldn't come to that. Instead, I had held on to a hope -- perhaps a delusional one -- that I could still use all this technology to foster a real human connection.

With my sorority's semiformal quickly approaching, I finally resorted to e-mail and wrote another message to Victor asking him to be my date. His reply was as follows:

I'm sorry, we actually have our Polo initiations on Thursday night which I can't miss, Thanks for the invite though...Laters -- Vic

My heart sank. I naturally turned to my loyal decoders to parse its true meaning. "Ouch," Jeff mocked me. "You got rejected by a freshman. Wow, way to go."

"No," rebutted Diane. "He has polo initiations; that is a legitimate excuse. He can't get out of that. That was not a brush-off."

"But he didn't even give her an apology," Jeff said. "Like 'Oh, I am so sorry, I would have loved to have gone, but I have to do so and so.' "

I had suspected as much, but I had hoped to get a more optimistic appraisal from my friends. It didn't look promising. I should have listened to Jeff. The rest of this ill-fated romance can pretty much be summarized by this IM conversation between my sister, "sennettor86," and me:

sennettor86: what happened to the frosh

runaround0: i wish i knew exactly, apparently i started freaking him out that things were getting too serious by emailing him and inviting him to the semiformal

sennettor86: what? did u go to the semiformal with him?

runaround0: no i went with my friend will and then . . . he showed up later and was dancing with other people, and i think he didn't know what to do cause i just kept dancing with will to make him jealous

sennettor86: ur nuts

So Victor and I are over. I found another date for Houseparties and decided that I still wanted to be friends with Victor. As Austen wrote, "Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love." But at this point, the only thing to do is to talk to him in person. I can't handle any more decoding.

I've even persuaded Rachel, who once told me that there was no conversation you couldn't have online, that some things are better done in person. "You're right," she conceded. "I heard about this marriage via webcam that happened between a soldier in Iraq and his fiancee. Because of a technological error, there were eight seconds of black silence before he said 'I do' and the poor bride was freaking out."

I ask myself if all this technology has brought us more than webcam weddings and crossed signals. The biggest fallacy is that technology makes it easier to find Mr. Right. It turns out that 21st-century technology is no better a matchmaker than Austen's Emma was in 19th-century England. More often it softens the blow when you've found Mr. Wrong; a rejection is both easiest to write and to read in electronic text. The very delay and confusion inherent in these new forms of communication allow us to edit our words and mask the embarrassment better than we can in person.

Better yet, you can always tell yourself that he probably didn't have enough RAM in his hard drive anyway.

Author's e-mail:

sennett@princeton.edu

Amy Sennett will be a junior majoring in international and public affairs at Princeton University this fall.